Technology trends for 2018: The ‘cobot revolution’

2018 could be the year small businesses bolster their teams with robots, but don’t worry – they’re here to boost your productivity not replace you...

Despite their growing prevalence and the incredible technological advancements over the last decade or so, talk of robots still has the ability to strike fear among the best of us.

Partly down to iconic films such as I, Robot but also because technology is not foolproof – and it does malfunction (just take a look at the supposed ‘suicidal robot’ in July this year – who actually fell over following an algorithm failure).

Moreover, scaremongering headlines along the lines of “the robots are coming to steal our jobs” are perpetuating the genuine fear of automation that is gripping the UK right now.

But cobots are an altogether different thing. Created specifically to work alongside humans (not replace us), collaborative robots, or cobots, are here to make our lives easier – and better, now what’s scary about that?

Slowly gaining traction, in 2016, cobots accounted for less than 5% of global industrial robot sales but by 2020 the market could grow to $3bn, according to Barclays Capital analyst James Stettler.

That translates to about 150,000 cobots produced and sold in 2020, and 700,000 in 2025.

With Chancellor Philip Hammond announcing a £500m fund to encourage innovation in initiatives such as Artificial Intelligence, like last year’s trend delivery robots, 2018 could see cobots really enter the mainstream.

How cobots work

Particularly suited to industries where menial and repetitive tasks take up a considerable amount of time, such as production lines, the introduction of cobots will allow greater efficiency and more time for humans for heightened creativity. They could also be used in instances were workloads are dangerous or can lead to repetitive strain or injury.

Interestingly, Mercedes-Benz recently highlighted their decision to almost take a technological step backwards and replace some robots with humans on their production lines. However, head of production planning Markus Schaefer, explained: “When we have people and machines co-operate […] we’re much more flexible and can produce many more products.”

There is a growing realisation that, however advanced, robots cannot emulate the human touch: empathy, creativity, but they can work in tandem with humans to turbocharge productivity.

And it’s not just manufacturing that could benefit, industries such as retail, healthcare, hospitality and food service could all be revolutionised.

For small businesses, cobots also provide a much more realistic option – in terms of logistics. Replacing the more traditional industry robots, cobots are small, light and easy (if slow) to move – a stark contrast to their bulky, often immobile and extremely complicated predecessors.

Pioneering Danish-firm Universal Robots (UR) has created collaborative industrial robotic arms that can “automate virtually anything”, from painting to labelling and packaging, while remaining easy-to-programme, set up and deploy – and most importantly, safe.

80% of the thousands of UR robots in operation worldwide need no safety guarding.

They also cost considerably less, with the average price of cobots generally around £18,000 – a fairly inexpensive employee, so it’s easy to see the appeal.

Start-ups such as Oppo Ice Cream have said they could use “cobots to analyse sales, marketing and operations data”, while sleep-assisting headphone start-up Kokoon Technology believe cobots are almost an extension of the 3D printing revolution and could allow them to “begin to create and test new prototypes quicker and easier than was previously possible.”

If we can change our mindset to view cobots as friend rather than foe, the possibilities are almost endless.

James Wallman, futurist, explains how your business can get ready for the cobot revolution:

“In case you’ve been spooked by all those scary headlines about robots taking your job, now’s the time to make a cup of tea and relax. They’re not coming to get you, they’re coming to help you.

“Are you about to invest in a robot or a cobot? That depends on your business and size. But at the least, divide your work into tasks that require a high level of skill and creativity, and those that are simple and often repeated.

“Once you’ve done that, apply three steps: simplify, standardise, automate. First, what you can simplify? Where can you remove complications that have somehow become part of the process? Next, can you standardise? The fewer individual choices you need to make per task, the quicker you’ll be. And third, can you automate this?

“If it’s a software task, is there a cloud-based service that can take on the task for you? If it’s a physical task, is there already a robot that’s affordable, compared to a human’s wages? Perhaps not, but if you’ve followed the three steps as far as your business will allow, at least you’ll know you’re being as efficient as possible — and when the right cobot comes along, you’ll be ready to shift from standardise to automate.”